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Turning Dross into Gold

Written by The Houston Chronicle
Published: October 24, 2008


Who wouldn't like to get paid for their trash? A New York start-up called Recyclebank has galvanized U.S. recycling programs using just that idea: It rewards consumers with retail credit when they recycle.

With post-Ike recycling poised to start again on Monday, it's the perfect time to try this approach in Houston.

Thanks to an unflattering report by the trade publication Waste News, many Houstonians know we ranked last among 30 major cities in recycling last year. Houston recycles about 3 percent of consumer trash, compared to Chicago's 55 percent and San Francisco's humbling 70 percent rate.

Mayor Bill White vows to better this record. Just before the storm hit, the City Council approved a promising plan to turn $1 million from the sale of recycled commodities into a fund to strengthen our program. As of this fall, Houston will also recycle wood and lawn clippings, both major landfill ingredients.

Most important of all, the city is launching a pilot program (it was supposed to start just when Ike hit) that brings "single stream" recycling to 10,000 homes. For these households, the city will collect more types of recyclables than they collect now, and consumers won't have to sort everything before dumping it in 95 gallon bins at the curb.

All these steps should improve Houston recycling rates, maybe even nudge them to the 30 percent level White's office desires. But for a population as massive as Houston's, recycling 30 percent of our vast trash output is inadequate.

It's also unnecessary, since the city can include one more tactic to get that rate higher: financial incentive. Recyclebank offers a compelling model. The company contracts with cities, providing trash trucks with scanners to register trashed items before they fall into the vehicles' maws. Recyclebank transfers that data to online consumer accounts, in the form of credit points for stores such as CVS and Home Depot.

Recyclebank makes its money two ways: by taking a share of funds a city would spend on landfills, and by advertising on its Web site.

The approach has enjoyed striking success in Wilmington, Del., which had Houston-like recycling rates until hiring Recyclebank. Its rate vaulted almost 30 percent in one year.

To be sure, it's easier for small cities like Wilmington, or dense cities like San Francisco to recycle —costly diesel-fueled trash trucks have shorter distances to cover. And landfill space costs much more on the coasts than in the Southwest.

It's also cumbersome to recycle in Houston — residents with curbside pickup must sort their trash first, making sure to pull items like glass and cardboard that other cities recycle routinely. Nevertheless, Houston culture does seem to play a role in our lame recycling record. The mayor's office recently had to warn 23,000 households that their curbside recycling could be yanked due to underuse. Houstonians are the only big city residents in America who don't pay, and apparently won't pay, a separate fee for trash pickup.

But Houstonians are energetic and entrepreneurial, two traits that Recyclebank's business neatly taps. Indeed, the fit with Houston's spirit — and need to recycle more —is so notable that Solid Waste officials began talks with Recyclebank several years ago.

The conversation ran aground for two reasons, according to the Solid Waste department's deputy director, Edward Chen.

One, Recyclebank used to charge a $2.50 monthly household fee for its service. It's not hard to imagine how that would go over here. Secondly, the company needs single stream collection, which, two years ago, Houston didn't have.

But it will have it soon. Recyclebank, meanwhile, got rid of its household fee. If this weren't kismet enough, Recyclebank this week started an official rollout in Texas, with two cities near Dallas already signed up. Plenty of obstacles to a deal remain. But the combination of Houstonians, financial incentive and the greater good seems obvious. Now that the city can finally start its new, improved recycling program, officials should think again about adding an incentive plan. Luckily, they have Recyclebank's number.

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Recyclebank At A Glance

Headquarters
New York

Offices
New York, Philadelphia and Houston

CEO
Javier Flaim

Founded
2004

Investors
The Coca-Cola Company, Craton Equity Partners, Generation Investment Management, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Paul Capital Investments, Physic Ventures, RRE Ventures LLC, Sigma Partners, Waste Management Inc., and Westly Group

Members
4 Million+

Communities
300+ in all 50 states

Reward Partners
4,000+

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